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Illinois is extending unemployment benefits by 20 weeks. Meanwhile, some gig workers are learning they’ve been overpaid.

A woman scans information at the Illinois Department of Employment Security's WorkNet Center in Arlington Heights in April.

A woman scans information at the Illinois Department of Employment Security's WorkNet Center in Arlington Heights in April. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Illinois extended jobless benefits another 20 weeks as laid off workers continued to struggle with the claims process, including some who say they have to return funds because they were overpaid.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security, the state agency tasked with handling jobless claims, said the extension was available starting Thursday to people who have gone through 26 weeks of state benefits. Illinois is among 19 states providing 20 weeks of extended benefits, the agency said in a news release.

More than 25,000 Illinoisans filed for unemployment insurance for the first time in the week ending Aug. 1, down from more than 33,000 the week before, according to the state’s latest figures.

At the same time, several gig and contract workers who were able to apply for benefits under the federal coronavirus relief package told the Tribune they owe thousands of dollars back to the state after learning they were overpaid.

Some claimants say the state is deducting funds from their weekly benefits to pay down the debt.

Chris Markacek, of Orland Park, has been out of work as a DJ since March due to event cancellations. He said the state notified him he owes about $4,000. By late July, Markacek said his benefits were being deducted to pay off the amount.

“There was no explanation for anything. It all happened very sudden and it was confusing,” Markacek, 34, said.

In an email Wednesday, IDES spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco said the overpayments are an “unfortunate consequence of a federal system haphazardly put together without much foresight” as to how it would affect self-employed workers.

The problem, Cisco said, is that gig workers and other self-employed claimants were asked to enter their 2019 net income to establish their weekly benefit amount before the state could verify the figures, and the state is not allowed to waive recoupment of the funds from people who were overpaid.

“As anticipated, the amount the claimant previously entered does not match the tax documents they submitted. The claimant has either overstated or understated the amount upon filing. When the amount is overstated, an overpayment is established and the claimant is required to pay it back, per federal guidelines,” Cisco said.

She did not immediately respond to questions about how many people in Illinois have been overpaid or by how much.

Gig workers, meanwhile, are worried about how they’ll pay back the funds as several remain unemployed.

Alexandra Eliades, a contract worker who lives in Elk Grove Village, said she owes more than $3,000 and has been trying to reach the agency for the last month to fix the issue.

“I went on blind faith that they knew what they were doing,” Eliades, 32, said.

Eliades said the state never explained why she was overpaid or how she’ll have to pay back the money. She is worried she’ll be left without money if the agency deducts the amount from her weekly benefit.

Last week, millions of Americans lost the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits as Congress remained at a standstill in negotiations for the next coronavirus relief package.

“They slapped us with these huge overpayments. I think they should waive them because this wasn’t our fault,” Eliades said.

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